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A portrait of Chancellor Joan Gabel.
Senate Council holds final meeting of semester, recaps recent events
By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • May 14, 2024
Column | A thank you to student journalists
By Betul Tuncer, Editor-in-Chief • April 27, 2024

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A portrait of Chancellor Joan Gabel.
Senate Council holds final meeting of semester, recaps recent events
By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • May 14, 2024
Column | A thank you to student journalists
By Betul Tuncer, Editor-in-Chief • April 27, 2024

Opinion | How to argue about cannibalism — and almost everything else

Opinion+%7C+How+to+argue+about+cannibalism+%E2%80%94+and+almost+everything+else
Jiri Palayekar | Staff Illustrator

Richard Siken, author of “Crush” and one of my personal favorite poets, posted his thoughts on Twitter about using cannibalism as a metaphor in literature. He claimed the act of killing someone for the purpose of using or eating them illustrates a selfish character — an opinion that a niche yet vocal part of the internet strongly disliked.

While I would love to solely discuss the implications of cannibalism as a metaphor — and very well might in the future — the philosophy major in me aggressively clawed past my English major after taking a look at the replies and retweets. One might think they wandered into a cornfield given the sheer number of straw men.

Poor rhetoric and unhelpful arguments are problems that, while certainly more ubiquitous online, often pop up in real life more than they should. The culture of debate has largely shifted toward a goal of winning against your opponent by any means necessary, due in no small part to the rise in political polarization and the right-wing pundits who capitalize on it.

The new “owning the libs”-style rhetorical strategy relies on rage-bait and straw men — but more importantly on bad-faith interpretations of arguments. This is all well and good if your goal really is to simply “own the X political group,” though its wide influence on public forums has caused it to bleed into the world of literary analysis, to the benefit of no one.

Siken’s original claim was simply that cannibalism is selfish, and there are many ways to give this a bad-faith reading. Never does the argument suggest that it’s a bad metaphor or that selfishness is mutually exclusive to love or that Siken himself has never used cannibalistic imagery, but these made-up arguments are far easier to dispute.

If the goal is to win — which many have come to value most — of course we should strangle the neck of a point we made up rather than the actual question at hand. Consider two possible replies to the claim that killing people to use or eat is selfish.

Number one: “Hey, bozo, ever seen ‘Bones and All?’ I’ll be damned if you think Timothée didn’t love that girl whose name I forgot.”

Number two: “You might be right, but can we not view cannibalism as a metaphor of giving oneself to another person completely — the cannibal doesn’t act on any carnal desire to consume, but instead only wants to fulfill their lover’s wish to live on within another in their death? It’s a final act of submission for the dying, not for the person consuming them.”

While you may be thinking this is getting a little bit weird, you can probably identify the main difference between these two responses. One of them contains at least two logical fallacies, and the other one is too long to post on Twitter without paying $8 a month. 

Brevity is the best friend of a good argument, and extreme brevity is the best friend of a poor one. The “own-the-libs” strategy of debate makes great use of one-liners that, while quite snappy, are often entirely lacking in actual substance. They work wonders on a debate stage where the audience really only wants to be entertained, but fall apart once they creep into a literature class.

Fortunately, the real world has no character limits — we are free to be as verbose as necessary to fully illustrate a point. To unlearn the winner-loser mindset of an argument, it’s important to not only avoid jabs that sound clever but hold no weight, but also intentionally aim to give people the best interpretation of their argument.

Assuming the best reading of someone’s opinion will either grant you a more efficient discussion or give you an immediate upper hand.

If your generous reading of their argument was the reading they intended, you’ve expertly cut out a long string of pointless back-and-forth that only serves to make both people more annoyed. Alternatively, if your generous reading was not what they intended, you’ve forced them to double back and say something to the effect of, “Oh, no, you misunderstood. I actually meant this other, much worse thing that you will undoubtedly find a lot simpler to pick apart.” Either way, your life is easier.

Ideally, reading generously and responding directly will facilitate a much more productive discussion, one that isn’t fraught with rhetoric that gnaws away at your precious brain cells. There are, of course, some exceptions.

You can certainly ignore these suggestions when arguing with someone who you know will refuse to change their stance, like Nazis or your friend’s little brother who won’t stop calling you Tumnus because he just watched “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” These kinds of people you might instead prefer to handle with a swift punch in the jaw or a defeated, pitiful sigh, respectively.

To protect your own sanity, choose your arguments — especially online — wisely, and when you decide to dive in, make it as engaging for yourself as you can, lest you end up like Siken after 14 hours of responding to retweets. 

Thomas Riley believes cannibalism is a great metaphor for selfish desire. Write to them at [email protected]   

About the Contributor
Thomas Riley
Thomas Riley, Opinions Editor
Thomas Riley is a junior double major in Politics and Philosophy and English Writing. They enjoy all things comedy and love to satirize current events and student life in their own writing. You can catch them procrastinating in Hillman, reading in Cathy or dreading a required economics course in Lawrence. Share your own opinions or sell them CDs by emailing